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First-Year Experience course aims to enhance student life

Howard McKee addresses a session of the First-Year Experience Course in 2019. Photo by Ariel Richards.

Grinnell College began its two-year pilot of the First-Year Experience (FYE) course this year. It is a class for first-years that meets six times through their first semester: every other Monday from 7:30-9:00 p.m. The course is designed to extend dialogue started in other first-year programming events.

Ben Newhouse, Dean of Students, volunteered to teach a section of the FYE course.

“I believe in what it’s trying to accomplish: continued dialogue and reconnection to things that are introduced over the summer and during NSO [New Student Orientation] related to student wellness, diversity and inclusion, identity exploration and sexual respect,” Newhouse said. The course will facilitate deep dives into a variety of topics that may not come up directly in an academic class but will remain relevant beyond college.

“If tutorial provides a way to help students academically transition to Grinnell, then I think of the FYE as helping students socially transition,” said Professor Tim Arner, Associate Dean of the College. Arner was heavily involved in the creation of FYE.

However, the schedule of the course has been a point of contention amongst the first-years.

“My time would be better managed doing homework than sitting in a class about time management,” said Mary Powers ’23. “During the NSO when they introduced the concept to us, they said, ‘Make sure you’re getting enough sleep. We’ll talk about that more in your night class,’ and that seemed awful[ly] ironic to me.”

Arner recognizes that the timing of FYE isn’t ideal for students. “The one time we could find that had the fewest conflicts for the fewest number of students was the Monday evening course slot,” he said. “The course was important enough that six meetings in the course of the semester every other Monday wasn’t such a burden that it was going to disadvantage students.”

The FYE is part of a larger collection of programs, resources, and organizations available to first years to help them transition into college life, and the sheer number of programs available is not lost on the first-years. Adam Khater ’23 said, “The College wants to offer a lot of resources, whether that’s the NSO community guidelines or sending emails about possible meetups, talking about going to SHAW, our tutorial advisors. Not only do we have those, but we also have the First Year Experience class.”

Much of the programming discussed at NSO is being reiterated and built upon in FYE. Newhouse argues that this reiteration is necessary, saying, “sometimes we try to have NSO accomplish every critical task in the transition and onboarding of our students. And I think so many of these concepts have to be revisited.”

Powers, however, believes that the discussions are getting stale. “We had all of this during NSO. People who were here for pre-orientation programs had the same content before NSO. It’s repeated two or three times or more, depending on who you are,” she said.

Arner acknowledged that first-years may not all be content with the FYE courses at present. “The value of this I suspect will grow over time,” he said. “I worry that in the immediate moment of students sitting in a class on a Monday night at 8:00 p.m., they may not be able to see how this is all going to pay off.”

The course was not simply thrown together by a few administrators on campus. “It’s involved a lot of conversations with a lot of different people,” Arner explained. The course has been discussed with a wide range of Grinnell community members, from Student Government Association to Karen Edwards, Associate Dean and Director of International Student Affairs. Although first-years may not see the course as necessary now, Arner said that “the instructors and the staff and the students who have called for the course, who have created the course, who have designed the course … know that it’s going to pay off.”

Newhouse is optimistic about the course as well. “I have so much enjoyed my initial time with my class. I look forward to the next five sessions with them,” he said. “It’s been a real privilege to serve in this capacity and I’m excited to see what unfolds.”

Howard McKee addresses a session of the First-Year Experience Course. First-Years must attend six of these sessions this year. Photo by Ariel Richards.
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